Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Merchants' War, by Charles Stross

The Merchants’ War
Charles Stross
Tor: 2007

I want to start out by saying that pretty much everything that Jonathan McCalmont said in his review of The Merchants’ War is spot on – starting when he states “In effect, this reset the series.” What McCalmont is referring to is the ending to the previous volume The Clan Corporate where the King, Egon “The Pervert” attacks a party for the unwilling engagement of Miriam Beckstein (our world walking heroine) and Egon’s brother, “The Idiot” and kills most everybody in attendance. Miriam escaped, as did a few others, but this was near wholesale slaughter. What this does, as McCalmont points out, is change the focus of the forthcoming novels. No longer is Miriam following the path from A to B that was laid out in The Hidden Family. Instead Miriam is on the run in one world, Egon and the Clan are each plotting in another world, the DEA and the FBI are working to attack the Clan’s drug trade in OUR world, and oh yeah, a FOURTH world has just been discovered. The game has changed.

One thing that I disagree with McCalmont about is that Stross has written a much more action packed adventurous novel which begins to get away from the heavy idea driven conversations which attempt to explain what just happened. Not so. The plot explaining info dumps of conversation are still there, but what Stross has added to the conversation (and to the novel) is a bit more tech speak and a bit more spy-speak. Like his Bob Howard novels (The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue) we are now graced with special operation codenames of GREENSLEEVES and the like. In all caps. Sometimes multiple codenames to a page. While this was vital to the Bob Howard novels, I feel that Stross has turned a corner and moved from what was predominately a fantasy of technology clash with world-walking between different versions of the world, and shifted to a combination run of the technology minded, espionage minded novels of his earlier work. A move closer to the Bob Howard novels is not a bad thing, but if this shifts too hard to earlier work like Accelerando and Singularity Sky, as praised as those novels are, I can’t help but feel that is a step in the wrong direction as I found those novels much less accessible and more frustrating to attempt to read. What is happening is that The Merchants’ War is providing a hint that things well be LESS fun in the future, and not MORE fun. For the reader. Bad stuff happens to the characters all the time.

My initial take on the overall series of The Merchant Princes is that Stross is pulling off a record like Fred Saberhagen did pitching for the Kansas City Royals in the 80’s. Every other book is good. I was turned off quite early in The Family Trade and while the pacing was swift and easy, the novel was a big let down for me. For some reason I still picked up the second book, The Hidden Family, and stranger still – I liked it. A lot. So I read The Clan Corporate and it suffered from what McCalmont pointed out earlier in his review: Miriam spent nearly the entire novel unable to act and the novel was claustrophobic (this may be McCalmont’s term) with little of the adventure of the first two novels. The Merchants’ War was a step back in the right direction and was a novel which left me wanting more and wanting to know more...but I don’t think it was nearly as good as it could have been. The series IS going in a more Science Fiction sort of way and technology is becoming MORE important, but I suspect that Stross’s writing is going to reflect this and that there will be a more insular feel to Book 5, that we are going to get more shop talk and less shop work. Based on my theory the book won’t be that good ANYWAY, but despite how interested I am in how Stross is going to put things together and how things will work out, I am fearful that he will take the series in a more technological Geek-Speak which will not serve the story.

The bottom line is that I am drawn to The Merchant Princes like a junkie to crack. I know it’s not good for me, and I know that ultimately the work isn’t as satisfying as I want it to be, and as I other people tell me it is. And yet, The Merchant Princes (in general) and The Merchants’ War (in specific) are highly readable, usually entertaining works of fiction.


Bookseller Bill said...

Fred may have had a good arm, but I think that was Bret Saberhagen pitching for the Royals in the 80s.

Joe said...

Bah! Absolutely right! I knew I should have looked it up to confirm. Fred Saberhagen was the SF author.